Sex and the City has a lot of sex and a lot of city, but it is the latter that ultimately provides more gratification. New York has been said to be the fifth character on the wildly popular HBO series, now in the midst of its sixth and final season, and she is if anything more beautiful, more stylish, and more infinitely various than the four exceptional specimens who play the leading human roles. The glittering metropolis this show depicts is as far removed from the gritty Gotham of earlier television shows like Taxi or NYPD Blue as Wal-Mart is from Bendel’s.

Of course, the reason the city is so alluring on Sex and the City is that the setting is not just New York, but A-list New York. This upscale realm is embodied in the show’s opening shots of Fifth Avenue and the elegantly urbane Chrysler Building, by the see-and-be-seen mahogany and chrome bars and restaurants, by the Chanel skirts and $400 strappy sandals, but most of all by the women’s interesting—or what the series might half-mockingly call “fabulous”—careers. Unlike the largely “kept” women of Candace Bushnell’s original newspaper columns on which the series is based, the four major characters of Sex and the City are successful competitors in the new knowledge economy.

In fact, it’s a safe bet that they are the most well-educated and well-employed sitcom characters in TV history. The Smith-educated Charlotte, at least until she marries a doctor in the show’s fourth season, manages an art gallery. Miranda, with a Harvard law degree, is a partner in a corporate law firm. Samantha has her own public-relations consulting business. And of course, Carrie, the Virgil whose voice-over guides the viewer through this comic purgatory, is a magazine columnist.

For Sex and the City presents single life—even in the midst of a glamorous New York and even at these relatively high career altitudes—as a kind of purgatory. Caught between adolescence and middle age, renting and owning, freedom from attachment and future husbands and children, the thirtysomething women of the series navigate an urban landscape thick with perplexing and perhaps chimerical images of the satisfying life. They want success in work, which they seem to have achieved; they want success in love, which continually eludes them. What makes the show infinitely more intriguing than ordinary television fare—along with the sharpness of its observation and wittiness of its writing—is that it hints that these romantic discontents are inherent in the meritocratic culture in which our heroines are succeeding so well.

Sex and the City unfolds in an elite New York that Edith Wharton or Nelson Rockefeller wouldn’t recognize. In this city, merit, not pedigree, rules. Unlike the old Knickerbocker establishment, where birth and breeding gave social standing, in this democratic meritocracy it is the prestige of your job that tells us where you are in the social order. On Sex and the City, the first thing we learn about almost every new character is his or her profession, and the list could make up a social register of the knowledge economy: “a broker who made two million on bonds last year,” a litigator “who takes steam baths with Ronald Perelman,” a Harvard MBA, a publishing magnate, an architect, a documentary filmmaker, a composer of movie music, an actor, a labor lawyer, a divorce lawyer, a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, an orthopedic surgeon, and an internist—and, of course, a full range of writers, the most creative of the brainy elite in this center of world journalism: “an editor at a hip political magazine,” a writer for The Economist, and a “short-story writer.”

Important as they are, jobs are not the only word on status for the newly arrived. Don’t forget clothes: Sex and the City is a Yellow Pages of Manhattan’s status fashion objects—Prada skirts, Richard Tyler dresses, DKNY jeans, Dolce and Gabbana tops, Fendi, Gucci, or Hermès bags, Cartier watches, Chanel earrings, and of course, Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo shoes. The heroines lust after these pricey and au courant accoutrements of success, by which they distinguish themselves from the flops who wear the cheap, the tacky, or the dowdy. They size up men with a similarly calculating eye for surfaces. Even in the post-liberation era, after all, female meritocrats want men with money.

And therein lies the rub. In a meritocratic economy, there is a disconnect between what makes people successful in work and what makes them successful in love. At the most practical level, ambitious meritocrats work grueling hours, and they’re certainly too busy creating opportunities for themselves to take much time for the chivalrous arts. What’s more, making it to the upper reaches of the knowledge economy requires mobility and independence. On Sex and the City, the more successful the man, the more stubbornly self-sufficient—and disloyal—he is. Men who have made it to the meritocratic heights, the show seems to imply, do so by keeping themselves free of confining obligations, and perpetually open to new prospects, whether financial or sexual.

Exhibit A is Mr. Big, Sex and the City’s closest thing to a Master of the new-economy Universe. Throughout the series, Carrie carries a torch for the smoothly elegant, rich, and powerful businessman, but he is a man who “won’t commit.” Carrie wants some sign from him that she is more than an overnight visitor—space in his closet or his medicine cabinet, an “I love you”—but the big man on the move has to be cautious about personal entanglements. “This isn’t about us. This is about work,” he tells her when they argue over his plans to move abroad temporarily. “I have to be in a relationship where, if I have to go to Paris, I go to Paris.” If Big remains aloof from Carrie, it is not because he isn’t immensely attracted to her, but because self-sufficiency is a sine qua non of his success. “Do you ever feel lonely?” Carrie asks plaintively in the fourth season, when he is preparing to move to the Napa Valley, where he has purchased a winery. “No,” he answers without missing a beat.

At the less lofty rungs of the status ladder, ambitious meritocrats are no less self-involved than Mr. Big; they’re just less polished about it. Sex and the City presents a rogues’ gallery of high-achieving louts full of I-need-it-yesterday! self-centeredness. New York is the perfect arena for the demanding impatience of this new-economy striver. Not only does he have a chance to test himself against the best and the brightest, he gets to live in what Carrie calls “a place you can get anything, anytime.” In season four, Samantha meets a man at an engagement party who snarls, “I told [the waiter] I wanted a Grey Goose on the rocks a fuckin’ hour ago! Chop, chop!” Never one to be put off by a testosterone-pumped male, Samantha, the randiest of the foursome, purrs, “Well, Phil, and what do you do?” “I’m a TV agent, and I fuckin’ love it!” barks the twitchy agent, a man whose loud-mouthed egotism is far better suited for success in wheeling and dealing than in cooing sweet nothings.

The TV agent, like many of the eligible knowledge-economy bachelors on the show, may have gone to Yale or Princeton, but he sure never got around to taking Manners 101. Charlotte dates a handsome agent who compulsively touches his private parts. One of Miranda’s suitors, deficient in basic bathroom hygiene, leaves “skid marks” on his underwear; another, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, leaves the door open when using the facilities in her apartment. Sex and the City contrasts the poor breeding of arrivistes like these with the old-money gallantry of men like Trey MacDougal, the Park Avenue WASP Brahmin who becomes Charlotte’s first husband. During their brief marriage, Trey, though handsome and virile in appearance, is a sexual disaster. Shortly after they have separated, Trey is thrilled when Charlotte comes to visit him, and in his ardor, he ejaculates on her dress. “I’m sorry, Charlotte,” Trey says with as much dignity as a man could muster under the circumstances. “May I get you a hankie?” “Trey may have had a lot of flaws,” Carrie says dryly in her voice-over, “but bad manners wasn’t one of them.”

The coarse manners of some of the high-achievers on the series are not simply an aesthetic problem; they signal an intense egotism incompatible with real attachment. While Trey suffers from Victorian-era sexual inhibitions that are a reflection of his aristocratic breeding, the show’s meritocrats, by contrast, favor perversions that epitomize their ill-mannered narcissism. “There aren’t any rules anymore,” Carrie says, “the choices are endless. And apparently they can all be delivered.” She’s not just talking about egg rolls. Coming of age in an atmosphere of post-liberation license and devoted to their own naked self-interest, the Wall Street honchos, the high-powered agents, and the fashionable writers on Sex and the City tend to be far more infatuated with their private fantasies than with the real women they take to their beds.

Samantha meets up with a Harvard MBA who opens up his closet to reveal a richly appointed torture chamber. Carrie has a hot affair with a rising politician—until he presses her for “water sports.” Miranda is briefly involved with a guy who only has sex in places where he can be caught and another who wants her to lick his anus. The narcissism of the pervert, who is interested in sex only as extreme sensation nurtured in solitary fantasy, is best illustrated by a vulgar movie star Charlotte takes up with in season three. At a bar and in front of a group of friends, he asks her to stick her fingers inside herself so he can smell them. His noxious and dictatorial self-absorption finds its perfect illustration in the way he calls Charlotte “Charlene.” When she corrects him, he answers matter-of-factly, “I prefer Charlene.”

Making it harder still to find a good man in a meritocratic age is the way success in the Big Apple tends to confound sexual identity. The upper reaches of the knowledge economy exist in a feminized metropolis of air kissing, clever comebacks, aesthetic discrimination, and prissy cuisine. It is the ideal ecosystem for women, homosexuals, and what Carrie and company call “gay straight men” (sometimes known as “metrosexuals”)—men who, though they want $40 creams on their face and high fashion in their closets, still prefer females in their beds. (This summer’s popular series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which a group of gay men help a series of straight slobs dress and decorate their apartments fashionably, mocks the old-fashioned male who is so out of his element in the style-obsessed city.)

Chris Noth, the actor who plays the vaguely metrosexual Mr. Big—smooth, elegant, and witty—certainly understands the problem: he once complained in Entertainment Weekly that, while his character was sipping white wine with the waifishly feminine Carrie, “Tony Soprano’s out there killing people . . . and you feel like such a wuss.” In the out-of-it loserdom of New Jersey, powerful men whack each other and then chow down with some pasta fazul; in where-it’s-happening New York City, they do deals on paper over Sauvignon Blanc and mesclun.

The problem is that the metrosexual scene intensifies sexual ambiguities that discriminating women find unappealing. In season two, Charlotte, reeling from her latest “Neanderthal” date, spends an evening with an effeminate 35-year-old pastry chef from Chelsea, who she understandably assumes is gay. “It’s so refreshing to go out with a man I can actually talk to,” she gushes, as they chat about Cynthia Rowley dresses and cabaret singers. She is pleasantly surprised to learn that he is not only a heterosexual, but a proficient one at that. She is less pleased when he jumps up on a stool screaming after spotting a mouse in his kitchen. Willing to accept that real men eat quiche but not that they squeal at mice, Charlotte retreats to Neanderthal country.

Even the anything-goes Samantha is taken aback by men who too eagerly embrace their inner female. Close observers of the show have noted that the promiscuous and emotion-free Samantha seems the fantasy female of some of the show’s gay male writers—a Kim Novak transformed into bathhouse cruiser. As if to mock that idea, Samantha runs into a hockey player she once slept with, who has taken to wearing a blond wig, weapons-grade mascara, and décolleté dresses—and who has renamed himself Samantha, in tribute to his “role model.” “I am so much prettier than him,” the real Samantha pouts uncomfortably, for even so battle-tested a sexual warrior as she is flummoxed by this walking example of the chaos of sexual identity in elite, post-liberation Manhattan.

Still, for all the shortcomings of the male species on Sex and the City, the show is too smart to blame the romantic miseries of elite New York on testosterone imbalance. The truth is, the “fabulous” heroines of the show have also sold a piece of their souls to the devil of the meritocratic economy, becoming self-involved, demanding, and status-obsessed in ways that lead to chronic romantic disappointment.

In fact, the modern female careerists of Sex and the City are every bit as prone to romance-defeating egotism as their male counterparts. The sweet-natured Skipper, a website designer who is Carrie’s male friend, asks a woman he has been dating why she no longer wants to see him. “We want different things in life,” she explains. No, he answers, “We want the same thing. We both want to spend more time with you.”

Many fans celebrate Sex and the City for showing fully liberated women acting on their sexual desires without guilt or inhibition. But their enthusiasm for sexual freedom has blinded them to the fact that our heroines, as egotistical and absorbed with their own pleasure as any man, often treat their sexual partners as contractors in a temporary business deal. If the guy can’t complete the job with 100 percent customer satisfaction, then cancel his contract, no matter how kind he is. Miranda dumps a generous and thoughtful ophthalmologist because he cannot bring her to orgasm. Samantha drops the loving James because his penis is so small it’s like a “gherkin,” and she flees a doting sugar daddy because he has a “saggy” posterior. Even the more openhearted Charlotte is ready to ditch a restaurant critic because she is repulsed by his uncircumcised penis. “There was so much skin,” she grimaces. “It was like a shar-pei.”

With the exception of Charlotte, the Sex and the City heroines are also resolutely self-sufficient, a quality epitomized by their complete indifference to all things domestic. Nesting and cooking are associated with obligations, stability, and nurturing—all of them a drag on the fast-and-loose mobility required of ambitious careerists like Carrie, Miranda, and Samantha. Carrie spends tens of thousands of dollars on shoes (made for walking, as the song says) instead of saving to buy an apartment. Her higher-salaried friends have enough money to acquire the household symbols of upward mobility; the Sex and the City website points out that Samantha has a “Viking Stove and Gemini Sink.” But the website is quick to assure us that her kitchen “looks very handsome, but . . . also looks brand new. We wanted to make it pretty obvious that Sam is not a domestic goddess by any means.” Miranda’s apartment also has “top of the line appliances,” but, as a partner in a law firm, “she’s too busy to cook.” In this last season, when she comes home to see that her newest lover has set the table for a dinner he has cooked for her—with the exception of Charlotte, only men cook on the show—she asks only half-seriously, “Omigod! I have place mats?”

Samantha, the PR consultant, is the show’s most comical and extreme example of the striver’s lack of regard for stability and deep connection. She is voracious, snooty, and as shallow as a reflecting pool, perfect qualities for her image-focused career. In one episode in the fourth season, Samantha introduces herself to the man she has dubbed “Friar Fuck,” a sensuous-looking Franciscan priest. Explaining his vows of poverty and chastity to the uncomprehending Samantha, he hands her a prayer card depicting his patron saint, adding that it shows “Saint Francis giving his coat to the poor.” Samantha, resplendent in a chic fur, takes the card and, just as she would if this were a hookup at Balthazar, hands him her business card in return. “Samantha Jones. Public relations,” she purrs, batting her eyes. Liberated from all prohibitions and commitments, Samantha can’t begin to imagine a life devoted to pursuing anything higher than narcissistic pleasures. “I like to believe people have more than one soul mate,” Carrie muses in one of the girls’ endless discussions of why they don’t seem able to find true love. “I agree,” Samantha instantly concurs. “I’ve had hundreds.”

Yet for all her promiscuity, Samantha, like most people on the make, is also a terrible snob. “I don’t do boroughs,” Samantha sniffs, when her latest boy toy asks her to come see him in a theater production in Brooklyn. Though Samantha is happy to hook up with her inferiors—including a fireman (series co-producer Michael Patrick King said he wrote the character, inevitably, given his déclassé career, as “a dumb fireman”), a wrestling coach, and her office assistant—that is because they mean nothing to her. Only the hotel tycoon Richard Wright, who has a private plane and buys her expensive gifts—and who, like her, keeps his business and romantic options open—manages to touch, and to break, her silly heart.

Samantha is hardly the only one of the fabulous four partial to alpha males. Carrie and company would like to pretend that a new day has dawned and that successful women who have their own corner offices or newspaper columns don’t need to worry about what kind of money their lovers earn. They delude themselves. In one especially clever episode entitled “The Caste System,” the girls, who are lined up having pedicures, all object when Charlotte insists that “it’s normal for the guy to make more money” and points out that Miranda’s current boyfriend is “working-class.” The women are offended. “It’s the millennium, sweetie,” Carrie preens. “We don’t say things like ‘working-class’ anymore.” But, as the girls realize as they look down in comic unison at the faceless salon workers cleaning the dirt out of their fabulous toenails, in this case it is the perennially naive Charlotte who is the realist. Class matters as much to the successful new-millennium woman as it did to Jane Austen, and each of the women’s stories testifies to that fact.

Charlotte, though she may know a working-class stiff when she sees one, still has a lot to learn about the changing nature of the social hierarchy in the information age, and her two marriages give her a full education. An old-line WASP, more Ralph Lauren than Dolce and Gabbana—she had her own horse as a girl and went to Smith (which the writers seem to remember from its Seven Sisters period)—she quite naturally is first drawn to Trey MacDougal. Though he is not simply a trust-fund baby but a doctor at a Manhattan hospital, his identity is far more wrapped up in his pedigree than in his profession. With his plaid-curtained and duck decoy–accented Park Avenue apartment, he is the old establishment personified.

By contrast, Harry Goldenblatt, Charlotte’s second husband, seems another breed entirely. No preppie prince, Harry is bald and a little coarse, a quality emphasized by his grossly hairy back. But Harry’s Jewish lineage, thriving law practice, and house in Bridgehampton all bespeak self-made and upwardly mobile braininess and ballsiness that make him suitable husband material, unlike Trey, whose frequent bouts of impotence seem inseparable from his repressed WASP blandness. On the surface, the writers are making the point that Charlotte must learn that life cannot match her conventional Town and Country dreams, that love sometimes comes in unexpected and even hirsute packages. What Charlotte has really come to understand is that success no longer dwells in the Connecticut estates of the MacDougals of this world, but in the 24/7 offices of the meritocrat, who is just as likely to be the son of an immigrant as a prep school grad. “My marriage is a fake Fendi,” Charlotte had moaned when she was married to the limp Trey. With Harry, she has herself a real Fendi, self-made, potent, and while not handsome, as solid and flashy as a roll of crisp, new $100 bills.

Carrie’s struggle to unravel the mysteries of love and status in the new information age is even more fraught than Charlotte’s, largely because she is more ambitious and more successful than her Smithie friend. Carrie has climbed her way into the heights of the New York knowledge economy. “I knew Carrie when she took the subway and wore Candies,” Carrie’s gay friend Stanford Blatch crows; but now, though she lives in a rent-controlled apartment and has to haggle over per-word payments from fashion magazines, Carrie takes taxis (and sometimes limos) and wears Jimmy Choo shoes. Her articles are optioned for a book; her book is optioned for a movie. She may not have a husband, but she has consummated a storybook career; in the fifth season, she celebrates the moment “even the most cynical New York woman dreams of her entire life”—the day of “a girl’s book party.”

But Carrie’s fairy-tale success severely compromises her ability to love. As played by the endearing Sarah Jessica Parker, Carrie may appear to be thoughtful, warm, and openhearted, but at bottom she is still an alpha-male huntress. Carrie’s relationship with Aidan, “the perfect boyfriend,” was always destined to collapse. Aidan seems loving and generous—when they break up the second time, he tries to get her to keep the engagement ring he gave her—but there is no getting past the fact that he is a furniture maker, who not only handles tools but who loves sports, beer, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. In a metrosexual city, such habits cast suspicion on his status; he could be a guy from the outer boroughs, or worse—what Candace Bushnell calls a “loser . . . from New Jersey.”

His profession symbolizes a kind of earthy domesticity that is entirely out of place in the higher reaches of making-it New York. Carrie wants to go to a Gab magazine launch party or a trendy gay nightclub or Bungalow 8, a club so exclusive “you need a key to get in.” But Aidan, who may be happy to sell his artisan wares to the wealthy elite, is otherwise unimpressed by in-places and beautiful people. (“Why do you buy into that shit?” he mutters at one point, with a trace of Birkenstock-style self-complacency.) Carrie breaks out in hives when she tries on a bridal gown and moans, “I’m missing the bride gene,” but the truth is, it’s not her. It’s Aidan.

At least until the show’s finale, only Mr. Big—the show doesn’t emphasize his exact business but we know he is no furniture maker—fully captures Carrie’s heart. Big is rich, and his wealth is at the heart of his masculine appeal. He travels in a limousine, in sumptuous suits and immaculately ironed white shirts. (“Cabs are bullshit,” Big grumbles when he is forced to travel in one with Carrie.) Big understands Carrie’s vulnerability when it comes to Aidan; calling him Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone, he sneers: “I can smell the guy on your sheets. Wood chips and Paco Rabanne”—a cheap men’s cologne.

Big’s wealth makes it possible for him to make the grand gesture that Carrie, sweet and loving as she can be, is shallow enough to confuse with manliness. When he gives $400 to the driver of a horse-drawn carriage to take Carrie to the hospital fast when Miranda goes into labor, it would be hard for any girl to resist. Indeed, in Sex and the City chat rooms, fans moan for the series’ writers to bring Carrie and Big together at the end of the final season: “Give us an ending that gives us renewed faith in the concept of soul mates . . . that happy endings exist with intelligent, exciting men. . . . This is a chance to send a message to an entire generation of women that you don’t have to settle.” They know that as a true alpha, Big is Carrie’s equal.

But according to the New York Times, the writers are aiming even higher than the generically successful businessman for Carrie: our heroine, who this season reached such heights that she got to ring the opening bell at the Stock Exchange, lands an “international artist,” to be played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who, according to Sarah Jessica Parker, “has such presence that Carrie gets bigger too.” In the meritocracy’s Darwinian marital struggle, a super achiever like Carrie deserves more than Big; she deserves Bigger.

Ironically, it is only Miranda, the most openly workaholic and ambitious of the four, who rebels at the confines of the meritocratic society and its stringent status demands. True, Miranda has often seemed willing to let success trump all other primal feelings; as Carrie quips after she breaks up with a boyfriend around the same time the lawyer finally receives a promotion: “That night Miranda lost a partner. The next day she gained 15 of them.” But Miranda has longings that she knows will never be satisfied by law partners, even 15 of them.

In season four, Miranda becomes pregnant after a sentimental one-night stand with her ex-boyfriend, Steve, and at the last minute decides not to go through with a scheduled abortion. Nearing 35 and diagnosed with “a lazy ovary,” she realizes this pregnancy could be her last chance to have a baby. Exhausted and falling asleep at her desk at her law firm, Miranda wakes up to learn that colleagues are whispering about her. Is she an alcoholic? Is she bipolar? Miranda becomes furious when an officemate who has learned of her condition tells everyone that she is tired because she is having a baby. Isn’t it better that they think she is pregnant than that she is an alcoholic or a manic-depressive, he asks? “No,” Miranda answers curtly. “Not in a law firm.” Miranda knows that the contemporary office is a jealous lover and cannot tolerate the sort of divided loyalties that come with babies. Before finding herself pregnant, she probably shared her profession’s preference for a mental illness over baby hunger. After all, the former could be curable.

But it is Miranda’s erratic relationship with Steve that best dramatizes her struggles with the status rules of elite New York. Steve is as lovable as they come: he massages Miranda’s feet and he phones her at 2 am to insist she look at a full moon. The relationship is faced with one serious problem: Steve is a bartender, and he lives in an apartment that he quips is “modeled after DeNiro’s place in Taxi Driver.” He breaks off with Miranda when he realizes he cannot afford the $1,800 suit she chooses for him for an evening event at her firm.

She claims not to care about their income disequilibrium, but later events suggest she’s not as free from snobbery as she thinks. In an episode in season three, Miranda is horrified to learn that a man she has been having an affair with is not the high-powered ER doctor he claimed to be, but rather the manager of the “Athlete’s Foot at 81st and Broadway,” an unforgivable, downwardly mobile lie. In a minor but quirkily funny incident that season, the corporate lawyer momentarily fantasizes about a man hidden inside a sandwich costume advertising a local eatery. When she finally comes to her senses, as Carrie muses with a nice touch of absurdist irony, it is because she realizes, “She was a lawyer, and he was a sandwich.”

As the series approaches its finale, Miranda’s intensifying mating/status dilemma may be reaching an unexpected resolution. At the beginning of the sixth season, Miranda meets a new boyfriend, Robert Leeds. Robert is African American, a fact that in the logic of the meritocracy earns no comment on the show. That is not the case with Robert’s profession. We hear repeatedly that Robert is a doctor for the Knicks, a niche that cleverly marries the stable income of medicine with the glitz of entertainment. Steve, now the father of Miranda’s baby, also has a new girlfriend. Her name is Debby, and, he announces proudly, she “works for MasterCard, corporate headquarters”—a job that marks her as lower or middle management, outer-borough, a loser in the knowledge-economy race. On hearing about all this, Samantha exclaims over lunch: “You win!” and Miranda admits to feeling some satisfaction at the fact that her trophy doctor looks a lot more impressive than Steve’s working girl.

But more than any other character on the series, Miranda is too smart, in the emotional as well as the academic sense, to give in to feelings like this. In the last episode of the fall season, she tells Steve that she is still in love with him and reunites with the father of her baby. Could it be that the least superficial of the fabulous women on Sex and the City will also be the only one to end the series married, with children? Is it possible that in her new guise she will even make use of her untouched “top of the line appliances”?

Sex and the City is not always completely sincere about the dark side of making it in the age of the meritocracy. The show never admits that the psychic qualities that compromise its characters’ capacity for romance also might interfere with their loyalty toward—not to mention their time for—their friends. Even after Miranda has her baby, and even though she is partner in a corporate law firm, she has the free hours and the energy for regular gossipy lunches with her friends; her leisure must get a good laugh from viewers who are working mothers. The show also pretends that girlfriends can satisfy your need for a family, should you not find a suitable husband. Our girls rarely fight, they are never envious, and, most unlikely of all, they just about never put their boyfriends—or husbands and babies—first. We used to tell fairy tales about happily-ever-after marriages; today, it seems, we tell myths about happily-ever-after girlfriends.

But despite the writers’ own flirtation with comforting myth, the threat of loneliness that inevitably bedevils the ambitious and mobile free agent looms like winter on a rainy autumn day in Central Park on Sex and the City. In season three, Samantha gets the flu and goes through her black book to find a man who will help her put up a curtain rod in her new apartment so she can close the curtains and get some sleep. No one will come to her aid, and the proud career warrior, in her moment of weakness, blubbers: “Carrie, if you don’t have a guy who cares about you, you don’t have anything. . . . We’re all alone, Carrie.”

Of course, Samantha wouldn’t be Samantha if she did not later claim to have been “delirious” from her fever. But her friends don’t have the same armor. “I’m scared,” Carrie says, facing her 35th birthday after breaking up with Aidan. Charlotte, who has herself recently divorced Trey, responds, “I know. Me too.” “Alone again,” nods Carrie.

Of course, that was before Carrie met her Prince Charming in the form of an international artist. Sex and the City may be smart as a Stanford-educated entrepreneur, but it’s still television.


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